I Carried a Watermelon: Dirty Dancing and Me by Katy Brand

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Don’t change yourself: change the world.  Compare the character of Baby in Dirty Dancing with the character of Sandy in Grease.  Sandy changes everything about herself to be what Danny wants and the rest of the cool kids expect.  Baby, without being either super-cool or super-glamorous, always remains true to herself, whatever the cost, and the film gets a happy ending thanks to her personality and her principles.  You can get quite profound over romantic musicals, and that’s what Katy Brand does here. A lot of what she says is fascinating.  Unfortunately, some of the other things she says are intensely irritating.  I’d love to go on a Dirty Dancing-themed weekend, at the place where the film was made, as she describes in one of the chapters in the book.  But I don’t think I’d want to go there with her.

I’ve never actually said “I carried a watermelon” in any context other than that of Dirty Dancing.  I do, however, say, or at least think, “I’m scared of everything” and “I’m balancing on shit” pretty frequently, and am usually to be found in the corner.  I have even said “I don’t just got to do anything,” to rude people at work … although I wish I hadn’t, because Lisa’s grammar is appalling!  And I know all the words to all the songs.  I first saw this wonderful film with my then best friend, when we were in the third year of secondary school, and we were both already obsessed with Patrick Swayze because of North and South.  I’ve seen it dozens of times since then, and I hope to see it many times more.

I love everything about this film. I love Johnny, obviously.  And, whilst I’m way too much of a wimp ever to have contemplated going into anything like the Peace Corps, I love Baby too.  And there’s the music, there’s the romance, there’s the whole coming of age storyline, there’s the fact that the main character is a girl – bearing in mind that this was made in the days of Top Gun, Back To The Future, Lethal Weapon etc – and, yes, there’s the social message.   It’s one of my all-time favourites.  So, what has Katy Brand got to say about it?

Well, a lot of it is about the social messages.  Think about the botched backstreet abortion – a storyline which, in Ronald Reagan’s socially conservative America, meant that some of the sponsors pulled out.  And the entertainments staff, who are living hand to mouth and can be fired, by jumped up little brats like the awful Neil, on the basis of a false allegation made by a “bungalow bunny”.  Penny and Lisa both being taken in by smooth-talking Robbie – there’s a warning to all young girls, and indeed young lads.  The end of an era, as well – the sense that the days of the Catskill Mountains holiday camps are numbered … and let’s not forget the historical social importance of those camps, set up back in the “No blacks, no Jews, no Irish” days when most of the people who went there would have been refused accommodation at many resorts elsewhere in New York state. And, most of all, Baby putting herself on the line to save Penny and get justice for Johnny.  Dirty Dancing makes you think, in a way that other iconic films of the ’80s, however great they are in their own way, just don’t.

This all sounds terribly serious, doesn’t it 🙂 ?   The book’s not all serious at all.  It mentions the theme weekend I referred to earlier.  I had no idea that you could actually go to the place where the film was made.  Wow!  I’ve been to all sorts of places associated with favourite books, films and TV programmes, and I love the fact that other people do this too. She also goes on about how she taped the film off the TV and then watched it so many times the tape broke, drove her sister and best friend mad with her obsession with it all, and wanted to go to dance classes because she thought they’d be like the ones in the film. These bits are great. And she also mentions Dirty Dancing on-line fandoms.  I love on-line fandoms.  I love the fact that I can have deep and meaningful discussions with hundreds of people about fictional characters, and that we all think this is a totally normal thing to do.  It’s so cool.  It’s so uncool!!

However, some of it is serious.  Katy Brand does, to be fair, stress that it would be inappropriate to make out that the film’s some sort of political statement.  It’s essentially a romantic coming-of-age musical.  She does suggest that Eleanor Bergstein, the film’s writer and co-producer is now trying to make out that it actually was primarily about making political points.  I don’t know whether or not that’s true, but, if so, then, with all due respect to Eleanor Bergstein, maybe she’s taking it all a bit too seriously.

Baby does take herself very seriously at the start of the film, but that’s part of it.  She’s 17.  She’s idealistic.  She plans to take “economics of under-developed countries” as her minor subject.  But she’s led a very sheltered life and has very little experience of the world.  She doesn’t get that none of the other entertainment staff can fill in for Penny, because they’re all too busy working.  She tells Penny that she envies her, when Penny’s just told her that she’s had to support herself since she was 16.  It’s a pretty silly thing to say.  But that’s the point.  She’s about to learn an awful lot in a very short space of time.

However, and this is a point I’d never really thought of before, she’s actually pretty mature.  And the whole film’s pretty mature.  No-one’s looking for a fairytale.   When Johnny leaves, Baby doesn’t burst into tears and beg him to take her with him.  It ends with “I’ve had the time of my life”.  Not with a wedding.  Maybe Baby and Johnny do live happily ever after, but, as Katy Brand says, it’s more likely that they drift apart once she’s at university and he’s on his next job, but that, as they both move on, they both continue to think that “I’ll never be sorry”.  That’s different.  Most romantic films aren’t like that.

She’s also super-confident. She isn’t cool.  She’s not unattractive, but she certainly isn’t a raving beauty.  Unlike Lisa, she isn’t even all that bothered about her appearance.  And she goes after Johnny.She goes to Johnny’s cabin. This isn’t an older man seducing a 17-year-old girl: if anything, it’s the other way round. Hands up, the first time I saw the film I wasn’t that keen. It took me a couple of viewings! That was partly because I’d got it firmly fixed in my head that Patrick Swayze lived in South Carolina in the 1850s, so I couldn’t quite handle the idea of him being in New York state in the 1960s, but it was also because I couldn’t get my head round the fact that Baby actually was that confident. It was something I just couldn’t relate to. Katy Brand says it makes her a role model. I suppose it does. And then we get Lisa offering to do her hair, but then saying that she’s pretty in her own way. That is great. Katy Brand really picks up on that. Everyone is attractive in their own way. Hooray! Heroine whose attraction is her personality, not her looks, anyway. Hooray!

Lisa is great there. She and Baby clearly aren’t that close, but, when push comes to shove, when everything’s going wrong for Baby, her sister is there to support her. And, when Baby finds out what Robbie’s really like, she’s desperate to save Lisa from him. And there’s also female solidarity between Baby and Penny, after the initial “Go back to your playpen,” scene. When Penny’s scared about the abortion, Baby comforts her. She’s completely out of her own comfort zone, but she’s there for Penny.

In fact, everyone’s there for Penny, apart from Robbie. Abortion is not the political issue in the UK (except perhaps in Northern Ireland) that it is in the US, but it’s still an issue. And this is set in the 1960s. Eleanor Bergstein was really saying something with this storyline. Not even Dr Houseman criticises Penny: he only criticises Johnny who (he thinks) was the one who got her into trouble, and the “butcher” who botched the abortion. And there’s quite a telling scene in which Penny says to Baby that she only slept with Robbie because she thought he loved her and “it was something special”. I hadn’t realised that sponsors actually pulled out because of the abortion storyline. Eleanor Bergstein was very brave with it.

So, there’s a lot to think about here. I’m not going to write it all out, but obviously we’ve got the huge moment in which Baby tells everyone that Johnny couldn’t have stolen anything because he was with her all night. We’ve got the showdown between her and her dad, when she says that she’s sorry she let him down but that he let her down too. We’ve got his eventual acceptance of what’s happened. We’ve got the unmasking of the Schumachers as the thieves and Robbie as the one who got Penny in trouble.

And, as Katy Brand says, wouldn’t you love to know more about the minor characters? What exactly goes on in the Pressmans’ marriage? And why on earth doesn’t Marge Houseman ask why Baby needs to borrow $250, in an all-inclusive resort miles from any shops, or where Jake has been with his medical bag in the middle of the night? Does it honestly not occur to her that something very untoward is going on?

So there’s a lot in this book which makes for very interesting reading.  But there were other bits which marred it for me.  I don’t know Katy Brand, and I don’t even know much about her, so I can’t really comment on what she’s like.  But there are a lot of people around these days who are full of some kind of sense of middle-class guilt, or uncoolness, or something, and deal with it by abusing upper-class people (usually in contexts which aren’t even relevant) and sneering at other middle-class people. They also, although to be fair this doesn’t actually happen in this book, usually sneer at working-class people and say that they’re stupid, know nothing about politics and shouldn’t be entitled to an opinion. So they actually snipe about everyone. And Katy Brand does come across, in this book, as being one of those people.

It must be very wearying to go around sniping about everyone. Isn’t that the complete opposite of what Dirty Dancing‘s about? It’s telling us that you can love anyone, and be friends with everyone. Not that you should make sarcastic remarks about people in a theatre queue having bought their sandwiches from Waitrose. Who even worries about where people in a theatre queue have bought their sandwiches from, anyway? Who even notices?!

And, in the middle of the book, she starts slagging off the Bullingdon Club. What on earth has the Bullingdon Club got to do with Dirty Dancing? Are there a load of Old Etonians staying at Kellerman’s? Are we to assume that Robbie and Neil are members of some sort of American equivalent of the Bullingdon Club?  No. Of course not. It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with it. So why bring it up? I just do not get these people at all.  What do they think they’re proving by having a go at everyone?  Especially when it’s not even relevant?

I get the impression, though, that Katy Brand would have preferred it if Robbie and Neil had been members of the Bullingdon Club. She keeps going on about “class war”. She’s clearly desperate to make out that the film’s all about a clash between the most privileged and the least privileged. And it isn’t. Robbie may be at Yale Medical School, but he still has to spend his holidays working as a waiter. We’re told that it’s the Houseman family’s first proper holiday for six years. Max Kellerman reminisces about his family’s struggles during the Depression, when they had nothing. And about when his Bubba and Zaida (that’s Bobbie and Zaidie to people who pronounce Yiddish the Northern English way, BTW!) ran the place.

I’ve never been to the Catskills. However, last month, I stayed at Lake Placid, in the nearby Adirondacks. There’s an interesting story there, about Melvil Dewey, the man who invented the Dewey Decimal System. He ran a hotel in Lake Placid. No Jews. No blacks. No-one else he considered socially undesirable. He was forced to resign as New York State Librarian as a result – which is pretty impressive, considering that this was in 1905. But the exclusion policy stayed. That would probably have been in Max’s grandparents’ time.

OK, I wouldn’t expect Katy Brand to know that. She’s not a historian. And, to be fair, she does acknowledge that the Housemans, the Kellermans and the Goulds are actually not from a Bullingdon Club type background. But she’s determined to push forward her class war theory, and she ties herself in knots over it. She quotes another author’s claims that Robbie’s trying to “out-WASP the WASPs”. What, because he’s a git and he treats Penny and Johnny like dirt? Gits come from all sorts of different backgrounds, love. It’s nothing to do with what colour you are, what religion you are, or what socio-economic class you belong to. Get over it.

She also claims that she’d seen the film about a hundred times before she realised that the Housemans were Jewish. I find that quite hard to believe, but then she also claims that, the first time she saw the film, she didn’t know what “knocked up” meant, and thought Penny was ill rather than pregnant. That seems rather odd, for a 12-year-old, but I do actually believe that, so maybe I should believe her about the Housemans as well. But then she goes on and on about “affluential Jewish families” and she quotes the out-WASPing commenty author as also saying how hypocritical it is for self-made Jews to look down on anyone else.

Why is she quoting someone else?  We’re not talking about the causes of the Civil War: we’re talking about a romantic musical film.  It’s a bit … strange.  And what is going on here anyway?  What is she getting at?  In the current political climate, it made me feel quite uncomfortable that someone should have written this. It actually had me wondering what Jeremy Corbyn makes of Dirty Dancing, a thought which I am trying very hard to banish. To be fair, I don’t think for a minute that she has a problem with the fact that the Kellermans and the Housemans, and probably the Goulds too, are self-made Jewish families.  I think it’s more that she can’t cope with the fact that they’re not part of some sort of privileged, country club, social elite, because that scuppers her class war theory.  Yes, I know I’m overthinking this, but I’m not the one who’s judging people on their socio-economic status and religion whilst criticising them for doing the same!

Then, after all this class war stuff and “affluential Jewish families” stuff, she jumps back to the fun stuff, and this was where the weekend at the place where the film was made came in.  I’d love to go there.  I’d love to go over every teensy little bit of the film with other people who’ve also seen it a million times.  I’d genuinely like to have serious discussions about the social message of the films: I accept that some people say that we should just enjoy books and films and not analyse them, but I love to analyse them, and I love to discuss them.  But maybe not with Katy Brand.  Which is a shame, because there was so much in this book that I loved reading and so much that I could relate to.  But there were some bits I just wasn’t comfortable with at all.  But, hey, that’s life.  You can’t be everything to everyone.  Just, like Baby, be true to yourself!

 

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